Fact is, `Power' is a tawdry affair

Exner as mistress is riveting, but hardly historical

TV Preview

July 20, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Say what you will about Judith Campbell Exner, mistress to gangsters, musicians and a president, she always paid her own airfare to the luxury hotels where she slept with other women's husbands and she never engaged in menage a trois, even when it was Frank Sinatra or John Fitzgerald Kennedy doing the asking.

Look, I am trying to be nice about Beauty and Power, a movie on the life of Exner starring Natasha Henstridge that premieres tomorrow on Showtime, but it isn't easy. I made the mistake of actually thinking about what I had seen after it ended, and my head almost exploded from all the inconsistencies and questions left unanswered by the film.

The only clear conclusions I could come to are the two stated above. The problem is the filmmakers seem to think the choices of paying her own airfare and not sleeping with more than one person at a time should make Exner a trustworthy person - someone in whom we can believe when she tells her backstage stories of sex, JFK, the mob, Fidel Castro, briefcases full of money and the CIA. I'm sorry, they don't even start to make me believe - or care about her.

For those not familiar with Exner, she was another of those strange, fascinating characters from the fringe of American history who claimed to have something to tell us about how the horror of presidential assassination could happen in Dallas in 1963. Oliver Stone's feature film JFK is full of such folks.

In Exner's case, as she tells it, she was a budding starlet in Hollywood of the 1950s with an actor-husband who cheated on her. She was lonely and found solace at parties frequented by members of Hollywood's Rat Pack - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, etc.

Again, according to her, she found special solace with Sinatra - until he brought another woman up to Exner's hotel room and he suggested all three spend the night together in the same bed. The moment is revisited in considerable detail, with John Ralston as the least convincing Sinatra in TV history.

What isn't given any detail or explanation is the psychology of her remaining a camp follower for Sinatra, whose actions are supposed to have so revulsed her. It is while ringside for one of Sinatra's Las Vegas shows that she meets JFK, who is about to run for president. Before you can say, "all the way with JFK," the two are involved in a two-year affair. And wouldn't you know it, this guy tries to arrange a menage a trois, too, and right at election headquarters.

The only famous guy with whom she's deeply involved who doesn't suggest a third partner is Sam Giancana, the Chicago crime boss. In the film, she's the one who reportedly carried a suitcase of money from JFK's daddy to Giancana so the gangster could buy union votes that would win the West Virginia primary for Kennedy in 1960.

In the film, Exner carries lots of suitcases of money back and forth from Kennedy to Giancana - much of it allegedly funneled to gangsters in Cuba to buy cigars that would explode in Castro's face and kill him.

Are you getting the idea of what we're dealing with here?

In fairness, the direction of Susan Seidelman and the performance of Henstridge are almost enough to keep you from thinking about all of this as you watch. The way Henstridge carries herself and Seidelman photographs her create a character that catches your eye and makes it hard to turn away.

But neither is nearly great enough to overcome inconsistencies and holes in this cockamamie script. The most frightening aspect of Beauty and Power is that watching a film like this is what passes for "knowing" American history in our culture these days.

Beauty and Power

When: Tomorrow night at 8

Where: Showtime

In brief: How to sleep your way into Senate hearings and history books

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